Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Blackwater Swamp Stomp 2017: The Ride

The day of the ride started off at a very chilly 25 degrees.  Thankfully, I was mostly warm in my tent due to my Little Buddy heater.  I think I maybe should have brought one more lightweight blanket, but certainly having the heater was much better than not!

The only reason I can camp in below 50 degree temps!
At about 5 am, the camp started waking up, but because the Intro ride was not starting until 10 am, I felt no desire to drag myself out into the cold.  I figured I could stay warm until about 7.  Regrettably, I neglected to inform Nimo about this plan, so at about 5:30, I heard a gentle nicker saying, "Hey, just so you know, most of the other horses are getting fed, which is making me hungry."  I did not respond and snuggled deeper into my blankets.

Closer to 6, Nimo whinnied again with a little more urgency.  "Hey, human, I would like my breakfast now!"  I still did not respond, and congratulated myself on being able to stay in the warmth instead of freezing like everyone else.

As 6:30 approached, Nimo let out a panicked cry.  "SOMEONE HELP!  MY HUMAN IS DEAD AND I'M GOING TO STARVE AND DIE ALONE!"  Me:  "OMG, seriously?  Aaaarrrrggggghhhhh, I am getting up."  Nimo:  "Oh good, you're awake!"

And so it was that I emerged from my tent into the frosty cold just after 6:30.  I gave Nimo his breakfast mash and wandered off in search of some coffee.  I ended up getting some hot chocolate instead, which seemed more appealing somehow.  Then I checked on my friend, who was also up taking care of her horse.

Ride camp at sunrise
After Nimo was finished eating, I took him for a 20 minute walk around camp to stretch his legs and also because he kept giving me the eye that said he wanted to go out and explore.  Many of the competitors were out and about warming up their horses, but the real excitement was when several horses broke out of their confinement system (I have no idea what type) and ran around camp briefly.  They were captured fairly quickly, but while they ran around, Nimo demonstrated some really nice passage:)  (Note that I am not making light of horses escaping, especially given what happened at a ride in Texas recently, but in this case, I don't think anyone was injured, and the way the camp was set up sort of created a funnel for any loose horses.)

I got Nimo set up with more hay, and spent some time chatting with my friend as well as others in camp.  What I was kind of worried about was Nimo freaking out while the 25- and 50-milers started.  His pen was close to the starting line and he was right near a lot of action, including hyper horses ready to start.  But I needn't have worried.  Nimo was so quiet through it all.  He just watched everyone start with interest, but no crazy vocalizations or trying to run around or buck.

Nimo watches the starting line with interest

It was actually kind of fun to watch all the riders head out and then spend a little time by the camp fire chatting to others in camp.  I talked with one lady in particular who had lots of experience training horses and crewing for top-level riders and while what she talked about was really a different world than the kind of riding I do, it was still interesting to hear her stories and process.

Finally, it was time for me to eat some breakfast, get my riding clothes on, pack up a few things so I wouldn't have to do as much after the ride, and saddle up.  Shortly after 9:30, my friend and I were mounted and ready to ride, so we walked the horses around a little to start warming them up and then headed over to the Intro ride leader's trailer.  I had previously contacted her about the possibility of my friend and I riding on our own instead of with the group.  My friend was a little anxious about riding in a larger group (I think there were over a dozen riders signed up with a maximum of 20), so I figured if we rode separately, that would help keep the group size down a bit.

Plus, I had started feeling guilty about signing up for the Intro ride when it was clear how much attention the ride managers were giving Intro riders.  I remembered the one Intro ride I'd done several years ago and how little attention was given to organizing it, so I had mistakenly assumed the same would be true for this ride.  But, the ride managers actually took the Intro ride quite seriously and were great about communicating in the weeks and days prior to the ride and at the ride itself.  They saw the Intro ride as an opportunity to really help interested riders learn about the sport and make sure they were safe on the trail.  If I was a new rider, I would have been so thankful.  Instead, I felt guilty for taking resources meant for newer riders.

So, we checked in with the leader and got her permission to head out at about 9:40.  We checked in with the timer at the start line, and then we were off.  And by off, I mean sort of walking and wandering around.  I forgot to start my GPS on my phone before we started, so I was fiddling around with it while we started, which left Nimo to his own devices.  Mostly he tried prancing a bit and not walking in a straight line.

Dom's husband, Mike Turner, caught this impromptu photo of us as we walked out.  Used with permission.
Once I got the GPS going, we walked for another few minutes, and then started trotting.  And we trotted and we trotted.  The trail was so amazingly perfect for trotting. It was pretty level, with good footing.  And for about half an hour I sort of thought we might be able to do something like trot 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes, trot 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes over and over for the whole 13 miles because the terrain was so consistently easy to ride. 

It was at that point that we caught up to another rider, who had stopped to take off a layer, and when chatting with her, we realized that we were somehow off course.  (Remember the trail manager who said it was impossible to get off the trail...)  It was a classic case of us blindly following the rider in front of us and when she missed a turn, so did we.  We had to backtrack close to half a mile, but we got back on course and vowed to be more careful.  I should note that the turn was perfectly well-marked and that one reason we figured out we were off course so quickly is because of how frequently the trail was marked with confidence ribbons.  At another ride, we would likely have ridden for much longer before realizing we'd missed a turn. 

After getting back on the course, we rode a really fun, twisting and turning section of trail through the woods.  There were lots of little fallen logs too, and I just loved it.  After the woods, it was more riding on the edge of fields, down sandy roads, through the Blackwater River next to a beaver dam, and tons of other truly scenic trails.  I wish I had taken pictures, but the one time I took my phone out to check mileage, Nimo absolutely wandered well off the trail and into the woods, making it clear that I really needed to pay attention.  If you are interested, though, Dom did her usual brilliant job of taking tons of pics and if you check out her post on the ride, you'll get a good idea of what the terrain looked like.

The horses did a great job taking turns at leading and we kept a really nice steady pace of about 6 mph.  We absolutely could have gone faster, but I didn't want to risk the horses being too tired at the end.  Plus, with it being my friend's first ride, I figured 6 mph was plenty fast.  We were also in kind of a bubble, with only an occasional 50-mile rider passing us, so it was nice to be able to ride our own ride, so to speak.

Probably a little past the halfway point of the loop, we checked in with a spotter at the end of a little out-and-back section of trail (the ride had a couple of those to help with mileage) and there was a tank of water and hay for the horses, which was a really nice touch.  Nimo tried to pee on the hay, but my friend's horse did a good job eating it when we took a break for a few minutes.

Probably around 10 miles into the loop, both horses hit a little lag in energy.  The sun felt hot even though the temperature was probably only in the mid-40s, so we slowed things down a bit and enjoyed a shady lane to ride, almost went off course again but didn't because apparently the trail manager had expected that and put a pie plate with an X on it, so we knew immediately we turned the wrong way, and picked up the pace a bit.

With about 2 miles to go, I could tell both my friend and her horse were a little tired.  Not tired enough to walk the rest of the way in, but tired enough that I knew we would need to lead the rest of the way.  So I asked Nimo to go in front and with a little encouragement he did and then he surprised me by getting his energy back and he enthusiastically led all the way back to camp.  The last section of trail (maybe the last mile and a half?) was another super fun twisting and turning trail through the woods.  In fact, it was tight enough with trees close to the trail that after the ride, I saw someone post on Facebook wondering how the draft horses and Friesian had handled that section of the trail.  I did have to watch my knees a bit and focus on steering, but honestly, that is part of what made it fun.  We didn't go as fast as Nimo wanted to go because I knew my friend wanted to keep things a little slower, but it was nice to have both a horse that had plenty of energy and one that I was able to control.

And then we were back at camp, coming in the same way we left.  All that was left was to pull tack and vet in.  I headed back to my trailer to give Nimo a chance to drink and get a snack (and for me to do the same), pull off his saddle, and sponge him a little.  I wasn't really in a hurry because there was no specific time limit for the Intro ride and I knew the main group was still behind us.  But I still felt quite honored when the ride manager showed up at my trailer with a friend to "crew" for me.  They helped me with my tack and held Nimo while I sponged.  (I guess owning a charismatic Friesian does have some benefits!)

Then I took Nimo over to the vetting area for the post-ride check.  We waited for a few minutes and then it was our turn.  There was a bit of an issue when the vet was taking Nimo's heart rate because my friend's horse was next to him and started his trot-out, so Nimo's heart rate spiked.  The vet told me to go ahead and do the trot out anyway.  I wasn't sure my legs would work well (they seemed remarkably tired for a 13-mile ride...), but I guess instinct kicked in and they in fact worked enough to run.  Nimo trotted really nicely next to me and after we turned around the cone and started trotting back to the vet, it felt like he was floating.  I even heard someone say something about a distraction (it may not have been Nimo, but I was so distracted by just catching his movement out of the corner of my eye that I wanted to stop and watch him).  I've never felt him move like that in a trot-out before.  It was just lovely.

The vet finished going over Nimo (skin pinch, gum check, hands on his back and legs) and then she checked his heart rate again.  It was 52.  I guess the first reading she got was 64 bpm with the spike, so factoring in his current rate, she decided a 64/52 CRI was good enough to clear us (I'm sure if we had been competing in the LD or the 50, we would have needed to do a re-check because the finish pulse was supposed to be 60 or less, but I think things are a little looser for Intro rides).  My friend's horse easily passed the vet check too, which was great.  And so we were done!

Map of the Intro ride
I got Nimo set up with a post-ride mash and some hay, and then my friend and I lounged in our chairs and ate lunch (that we brought with us).  The ride was not offering lunch for the 25- and 50-mile riders (although there was plenty left over from the potluck the night before), but they were grilling burgers for the Intro riders (very thoughtful!).  I had meant to find the Intro leader after the group got back, but they must have come in when we weren't paying attention and once I sat down, my body did not want to get up, and I pretty much sat until about 2:30, when it was time to finish packing up and get on the road home.  (The ride manager had asked that no one leave until after 3 to make sure there would be no heavy traffic on one section of road that was also part of one of the loops for the ride so the horses and riders would not have to constantly watch for traffic.)

The drive home was pretty uneventful until the last hour, when it got dark.  My dashboard lights appeared to be burned out/non-functional, so I had to use the ambient light from my cell phone screen to see how fast I was going.  I later discovered that someone (absolutely, totally me) had messed with the dimmer dial for the dashboard lights and dimmed them to nothing (why would that even be option?), so that was an easy fix, but definitely annoying while it was happening.

I do plan to do a post-ride analysis, which I had stopped doing because I had sort of settled on all my equipment.  For this ride, though, I changed my saddle, stirrups, saddle pad, girth, and breast collar, so I figure those changes warrant their own write-up. 

However, in terms of the ride, I will say that the Blackwater Swamp Stomp has a permanent spot on my ride calendar forever.  This was the best ride I have ever been to.  The trails were so well-marked and beautiful and barefoot-friendly and relatively easy without being boring, which is great for a first ride of the season.  The ride management was friendly and accessible (plus lots of communication on a dedicated Facebook page before and after the ride).  The camping situation was great because the camp was fairly small, so even if you parked in the back, you still weren't that far from everything.  And I like that there were volunteers helping with parking to make sure space was efficiently used.  The four-hour drive to the ride was pretty easy (no mountains to stress my truck's transmission and no narrow, crazy roads with twisting turns).  And the atmosphere at the ride was friendly and drama-free.  I actually had the most fun on a ride that I've ever had.  A big part of that was Nimo - he was so much calmer at the start, with no pulling and fighting to go faster, and he did a great job alternating leading with my friend's horse.  He was just lovely to ride.  Plus, I had a friend to ride with that I had ridden with quite a bit, so we knew each other and our horses and it was almost like a team effort, which was really cool.  It also feel really great to see my friend complete the ride successfully.  It was, of course, her and her horse's effort, but I love that I played a role in helping them get ready and that we were able to lead the last couple of miles to make it easier for them to finish. 

All in all, this was a wonderful way to start a ride season that I wasn't sure I would start even three months ago.  And guess what that means?  I sent our entry in for the Foxcatcher ride in Maryland next month.  I love that ride too, and it was bothering me that I wouldn't be able to go.  I'm still not quite sure that Nimo will be fit enough for the whole 25 miles, but I've said that before, and he was, so I'll just see how things play out the day of the ride.  It's an easy enough ride to use the rider option at because the mid-ride vet check is in camp, so I can always do the first loop only.

So stay tuned for my post-ride analysis!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blackwater Swamp Stomp 2017: T-1

Back in December, I found out about a new endurance ride that would be offered in Virginia: the Blackwater Swamp Stomp (BSS), which would be held in what is called the tidewater region of Virginia, not too far from the famous (or infamous if you are trying to drive there) Virginia Beach.  Virginia currently had four endurance rides and all of them were in the mountains.  Don't get me wrong, the mountains are beautiful, but after awhile, it gets a bit tedious to always be worrying about hoof protection and hauling the longer distances to train in the mountains.  So when I found out that the BSS would be held over easy, barefoot-friendly terrain, and offered an intro ride of 13 miles, I couldn't help myself but to sign up.  I also convinced a friend of mine that it would be a good idea to go, and she signed up too.  We trained together once a week (except when Nimo was out of commission due to the abscess) and by some miracle, I deemed us and our horses ready about a week before the ride would be held, with one exception - clipping.

Weather predictions for the day of the ride about a week out indicated temperatures in the 60s, which meant clipping would be a primary concern for me.  However, given that Mother Nature has been unwilling to provide either seasonal or consistent temperatures for months, I opted to wait until as close to the ride as possible to commit to a clip for Nimo.  As the days went by, the expected high for the day of the ride crept downward.  I decided to get a head start on clipping by doing a trace clip three days before the ride.  The weather was gorgeous, with highs near 70, so I knew a trace clip would not mean I would have to blanket and Nimo would probably appreciate some relief as well.  And even with cooler temps, a trace clip would be helpful for cooling without taking too much hair off for Nimo to need a lot of blanketing.  Two days before the ride, I finally committed to doing a modified chaser clip and as temperatures plummeted below freezing (remember I said Mother Nature was a bit off?), I shaved more hair off of Nimo in anticipation of a high of 46 degrees on ride day.  I should emphasize that my experience with Nimo is that if he gets overheated on the trail, he will slow down, never to pick up a decent pace again, and no amount of ice water or other cooling technique is going to perk him up.  It is critical that I keep him from overheating in the first place and that means clipping fairly aggressively and blanketing in cold weather.  This is what I ended up with:

Not the prettiest clip I've ever done, but I figured it would get the job done!
With the clipping out of the way, I went home to finish packing the few remaining things that could be packed the night before, and enjoy a night of the usual tossing and turning and frantically making a note to myself every time my brain remembered something I'd forgotten to pack.  (I keep my phone next to me and type in any item that I remember during the night, so in the morning I don't forget!)

Bright and early on Saturday morning (the ride was on a Sunday), I got up, made a quick cream cheese-based filling for the dish I'd be bringing to Saturday evening's potluck dinner (it turned out great, so if you are interested, click here for the recipe), packed the last few things that needed to be packed, and headed out down the road.  One minute later, my husband called me to tell me I'd forgotten my kindle, so I turned around and stopped by the house to pick it up before once again heading down the road.

Luckily, I'd padded my schedule with about 15 minutes, so having to go back for the kindle was not a big deal.  Plus, I'd already loaded everything and had the trailer hooked up already, so when I stopped by the barn, all I needed to do was fill a water container and load Nimo.  He was already in his stall eating breakfast, so my timing was perfect.  While he finished eating, I got the water, double-checked a couple of things, and then loaded him.

My friend and I planned to caravan most of the way to the ride, and my friend came up with a route that completely avoided I-95.  It would take us a little longer (assuming there was no accident or any other of the many completely random delays that tend to plague I-95), but we would be able to avoid driving amongst all the people who are idiots who also tend to plague I-95.   So about a half hour after I loaded Nimo, I met up with my friend and followed her for the next 3 1/2 hours as we wound our way south through Virginia.  The trip was pretty uneventful.  We stopped about halfway through for gas and to check the horses.  Both were blanketed, but the temperature seemed to be warming up, so I wanted to make sure Nimo wasn't too hot (he wasn't) and give him a quick snack.

In keeping with my usual custom of traveling to new places, we missed a turn near the end because the sign was crooked and we couldn't see the name of the street we were supposed to turn on.  (This happens ALL THE TIME in Virginia and it is beyond annoying when you are hauling a trailer.  I spend a lot of time furiously hoping that the idiots who flip the signs will spend an eternity in hell where they have to travel places and all the signs are messed up or missing...)  But we were able to find an abandoned business parking lot to turn around in, and we were back on track within in few minutes.

And then about 20 minutes later, we were within a mile of camp.  I found myself getting excited as we drove down the gravel/sand lane to the park where the ride was based.  I could see the ribbons marking some of the trail and we passed the separate ride 'n tie camp on the way in.  Even though I have struggled so much with whether the effort to train for endurance rides is worth the sacrifices, on that day, with the sun shining and the air crisp with spring, it was hard for me to deny that all the conditioning and clipping and blanketing and packing and planning was worth it for the opportunity to see new trails and catch up with fellow riders.

We arrived at camp just after 1 pm, and we managed to get the best parking spots ever.  Literally.  Parking was incredibly limited at the ride and it had filled weeks before, so I had expected we'd be crowded and parked inconveniently.  Instead, the ride management had carefully arranged and numbered parking spots and were making sure everyone was parked appropriately, so each rig had enough room for ample pens for the horses and maneuvering room to get parked.  My friend and I parked across from each other because she had a bigger trailer and there was separate parking for bigger trailers to make sure they had enough room.  To my left was the check-in camper and tent for food, as well as the camp fire.  Talk about conveniently located!  I was also close to the vetting area, so if I'd been doing a longer ride, I could have easily crewed from my trailer.

After I got parked and took a couple of minutes to be in awe of how lucky I was, I unloaded Nimo and tied him to the trailer so I could unload the livestock panels I use for his pen.  A minute later, the ride manager herself stopped by to say hello and asked if it was OK if she walked Nimo while I set up his pen.  I was so surprised, I kind of didn't know what to say.  (I mean surely the ride manager has more important things to do than to help me?)  After stuttering for a minute, I finally agreed that yes, she could take Nimo for a walk (apparently she had a friend who loved Friesians and wanted to introduce them).  So Nimo got to socialize and eat grass while I set up his pen.  And about 20 minutes later he came back to me attached to someone else who loved him and I got him set up with hay and water.

Then I went to check in, which was easy because I'd already submitted all my paperwork, and then I spent some time chatting with my friend as well as others I knew in camp.  I think all but 2 or 3 of the regular riders that I know ended up being at the ride, and I have to admit that it made me feel right at home.  Then I got my tent set up despite the fact that I apparently completely forgot the process I had come up with, so I spent a lot of time swearing and looking harried while I tried to remember how to get the *&%$ing thing up.  Eventually, I decided it was good enough and got the rest of my stuff in the tent and set up for the night.

At that point, it was time for the vetting in to start.  The line was pretty long for about an hour, so my friend and I just chatted and watched while we sat at my trailer because I had a lovely view of the process.  I have to admit that I have never had a chance to really watch so many horses do their trot-outs, so it was definitely a great opportunity.  Lots of beautiful, fit horses.  Finally, as the line dwindled, we decided to get our horses and vet in.  And of course, because I finally remembered to both order and bring a dozen grease markers with me, the ride management had plenty and were marking horses for everyone.  Nimo was letter A.  Letters were used for Intro riders, and I think we must have been the first to register.  We vetted in without any problems, and then I ran my friend's horse for her because she has a bad knee.  Her horse vetted through just fine too, and we put them back in their pens.

By then, it was getting close to dinner time, so I finished making the appetizer I had brought and before long, it was time for dinner, followed shortly by the ride meeting.  The ride meeting was pretty short, with the trail manager explaining how the trail was marked.  I did have a feeling of foreboding when he said, "Only a real idiot could get lost out on that trail because it's been marked so well."  If there is anyone who can miss a perfectly well-marked turn, it is me.  And if there is anyone who can't read a map to save her life, it is me.  And I have a horse who isn't much better.  So there's that.  The pulse criteria was the standard 64 bpm for the holds and 60 for the finish.  There was also a post-ride meeting just for new and intro riders, so I stayed for that.  I wanted to make sure my friend got the full experience and also, while I have accumulated quite a bit of knowledge, it had been 10 months since my last ride, so I figured a refresher was not a bad idea, especially given the previous situation with my tent.

The new rider briefing was sort of the usual stuff - basically going through much of what had been said at the ride meeting because new riders always seem to need the extra confirmation of the information they thought they heard and offering some basic tips.  The only thing that I really remember standing out to me was when one of the speakers (maybe one of the vets?) said that trotting was a much more efficient gait than walking and that a person's horse would actually stay cooler and in better metabolic shape if she trotted him than if she walked him (at least that is how I perceived what she said).  I'm not sure I've heard it said exactly that way before, but I have heard something like it in the past.  Here's the thing: I'm going to need some scientific evidence for big black horses before I believe it.  I'm not sure if this idea is more relevant for Arabs, and I will admit that Nimo pulses down a lot faster than I expected, even when I trot him almost all the way in to the vet check, but I really struggle with the idea that going faster is easier than going slower.  Sure, trot is an efficient gait in terms of movement, but that doesn't mean it is always the best gait.  I know some horses who actually seem to do better at the canter, and for Nimo, it would be abuse if I asked him to keep trotting when he was tired.  (Plus, let's not forget all the gaited horses who don't have a trot.)  It is certainly possible that I've missed a nuance with the concept, but I'm not sure it is the best advice to give to new riders, whose horses may not be as fit as they need to be.  In my opinion, every horse is different, and it is paramount that a rider learn to pay attention to the horse rather than apply one-size-fits-all rules.  Anyway, I don't bring it up to criticize the person who said it, but rather as a reminder for myself to keep it in the back of my mind to think about and do more research on.

Everyone went their separate ways soon after the ride meeting ended because the cold was creeping in.  The expected low was 25 degrees and the temperature was well on its way to that end by 7 pm.  I got my trusty heater running in my tent and snuggled in for a bit to read before I took Nimo on his usual pre-bedtime walk.

My trusty propane heater
I also checked email and Facebook and discovered that a fellow rider had posted pictures of what looked like a full-blown forest fire right next to ride camp.  I was kind of surprised because I hadn't noticed anything (note to self: learn how to be more observant when in ride camp...), but I figured the ride management would let us know if there was an emergency, and I had what I considered to be pretty good emergency transportation in the form of Nimo (who I'm pretty sure would turn into an endurance horse of Tevis caliber if faced with an out-of-control fire).  I later discovered it was a controlled burn, but the pictures were definitely a little scary.

At about 9, I pulled myself out of my toasty warm cocoon to walk Nimo for about 20 minutes and make sure he had hay and water for the night.  Then I tucked myself into bed, read for a bit more, and turned the lights off at about 10, hoping for at least a little sleep before the ride the next morning.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

HIghs and Lows

I can't believe it's been over two months since my last post.  I've been thinking about writing a lot but the words just wouldn't come out right.  After struggling and struggling with how to write this post, I've decided I'm just going to sit down and write and see what comes out.  So why don't I start from the beginning?

The new year started out great.  I joined three other ladies at Phelps WMA for a lovely 8-mile ride.  I knew one lady well, but the other two were new to me, so we spent most of the ride just walking and chatting.  As it turned out, one lady knew part of the park very well and I knew another part of the park well, so between the two of us, we managed to create a wonderful figure-8 that would be perfect for conditioning purposes - lots of small to medium-sized hills, a couple of water crossings, and a few places to let the horses stop and grab a bite of grass.

Nimo and I after our ride

The Figure-8
After the ride, I was really excited to let a friend who was interested in doing an intro endurance ride know that I'd found a great trail for us to use for conditioning purposes, and I was looking forward to riding with her as we both prepared for Virginia's newest endurance ride - the Blackwater Swamp Stomp.  The ride was scheduled for the first Sunday in March, so I figured we had plenty of time to make sure the horses were ready.

During the first week of January, I didn't get any riding in until Saturday.  At the time, I was starting to putz around with a new aquarium, and I admit my focus was on that instead of riding.  By the time Saturday rolled around, the very lovely 40s and 50s we'd had all week plummeted to the low 20s and we got a bit of a blizzard.  Because I'd procrastinated about riding all week, I sucked it up and rode during the snow for about an hour.  I had planned to take Nimo around the trails on the farm where he is boarded, not realizing that apparently it was the last day of deer season, so there were several hunters out.  I tried to move to a different section of the farm to stay out of their way, but Nimo threw a fit at a water crossing and absolutely would not go across it, even though he's done it dozens of times.  I either had to get off and drag him across or head back to the arena.  I decided that I would try to salvage the ride with some arena time.

Riding out in the woods at Nimo's barn
It was a disaster.  I could not get any suppleness from him no matter what I tried.  It was quite possibly the worst ride I've had on him in recent memory.  I was frustrated, mad, and tired when we were done and really questioning what had happened to my riding skills.

The next day, the temperature barely cracked 20 degrees with winds only someone from North Dakota could love.  Thankfully, I had already planned to have lunch with a couple of friends, so I didn't feel compelled to ride.  Not so thankfully, as I was leaving the restaurant, I got a call from the barn - something was wrong with Nimo.  The staff working that day were not knowledgeable about horses, so the best information I could get was that Nimo had eaten his breakfast, there was no sign of trauma, and something wasn't right with his hind end.

I drove home, took care of a few things that needed to be done quickly and conscripted my husband into driving me out to the barn, so I could focus on diagnosing my horse before I'd even seen him.  By the time we got there, I was borderline hyperventilating and I'd convinced myself he was colicking and dying.  I cursed myself for not bringing the truck so I could quickly hook up the trailer and take him to the nearest emergency clinic and I mentally reviewed my parameters for what we could pay to treat any problem and where I would draw the line for euthanasia.

I tried to keep it together because my daughter was with us, but I was worried sick.  I grabbed a few treats from my tack locker in case I needed them to convince Nimo to move, checked his feed bucket to confirm it was empty (he was fed dinner between the call with the barn and me getting out there, although I wasn't sure if they had brought him in or fed him in the field), and walked as fast as I could to Nimo's field.  On the way, I caught a glimpse of him and saw two perky ears, which went a long way toward alleviating my concerns.  I came around the manure storage area, which has an 8 foot fence, and finally could see all of Nimo.  He was standing near the fence, alertly watching for me.  As I got to the paddock gate, he started walking toward me, and it became obvious that he was very lame on his right hind leg.

I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on what I was seeing.  He was happy to move forward, but he definitely had a grade 4 lameness (he was only using the toe of his hoof to bear weight and using it as little as possible).  As he got close enough for me to touch him, I looked for any obvious swelling or blood that would mean I shouldn't move him any more without stabilizing the leg.  I didn't see anything, so I decided that because he was willing to walk, I would lead him to his stall, which wasn't too far away, so I could do a better examination.

I got him to his stall and carefully palpated his whole leg.  I didn't find anything until I felt some heat and swelling at the coronet band.  At that point, I thought the diagnosis was clear.  Nimo had an abscess that was trying to burst out through his coronet band.  That probably explained his behavior the day before under saddle.  Even though I didn't feel an unevenness in his movement, that abscess was probably causing at least pressure and making him reluctant to move well.

Nimo has only had one other abscess, and that was about 10 years ago.  Interestingly, it was in the same hoof and I remember that for about 2 weeks before we knew he had it, my trainer had accused me of riding so poorly that I was making my horse lame.  Then, Nimo manifested the usual lameness that looked like a broken leg and the abscess burst out of his heel bulb in three days.  For that abscess, I kept him turned out and did no soaking.  My vet had advised no Bute, turnout as much as possible, and no soaking unless it didn't resolve fairly quickly or he was in too much pain to move and eat.  I know there are different ways of addressing abscesses, but I decided to stick with what had worked before for him.  So I turned him out, gave him a little more hay than usual in the run-in shed (there are round bales in his field, but I typically give him 2 flakes of alfalfa in his run-in shed at night because all of his field mates are stalled at night and it is a way for me to balance the orchard grass hay that the barn feeds), and let the barn owner know the situation.

After a couple of days, Nimo started to gradually improve with respect to the lameness.  After 6 days, he appeared sound at the walk to me, but I could find no evidence that the abscess had burst in the location I'd first identified in the coronet band.  We did have a lot of mud that week, so I thought maybe I missed it somehow because all of the hoof tissue was softened and maybe the abscess had come out a fairly small hole?

I had a lesson on January 15th, so I thought that would be a great opportunity to have a second pair of eyes evaluate Nimo's movement to make sure he was sound.  He felt great under saddle, and we had a really nice lesson.  We did lots of walk to canter transitions and he worked pretty hard.  My instructor saw no sign of lameness.

But it was weird - I mean, I had expected severe lameness for 1-5 days and then immediate soundness after the abscess burst and drained.  It was bothering me that I couldn't find the point the abscess had come out and it seemed unusual that he'd had an almost linear improvement in his lameness over the course of the week.  Yet, he seemed sound.  I rode him barefoot on gravel and rocks and he was fine.  I did a couple of conditioning rides and he was fine.  So I put it out of my mind.

View from the ridge at the Shenandoah River State Park
Until February 5th, when I got another call from the barn saying that Nimo was lame again, and he refused to come in from the field to eat his breakfast.  I was in the process of getting ready for a lesson when the call came, so I called my instructor to cancel the lesson, and headed straight out to the barn, expecting to find a similar situation to before, and thinking that I should maybe have the vet out to look at the hoof in question because something wasn't right.

I admit that I didn't take this call as seriously as the last one because I was convinced it was the same abscess that had somehow not come out the previous month.  When I got to the barn, there were indications right away that this was different somehow.  Another boarder was at the barn taking care of her lame horse and she mentioned that Nimo was laying down in the field and he didn't get up when she'd gone out to see him.  Nimo doesn't lay down in the field.  He rolls sometimes and there are signs that he does lay down for short periods, but I have never seen him lay down during the day and stay down.  I have owned this horse for almost 14 years, and I have never seen it.  Which is not to say that it has never happened, but I'm out at the barn a lot.

I grabbed some treats and his halter and asked if the other boarder would come with me.  She did and we walked out to the field together.  Nimo was standing when we found him, but he had clearly been laying down in the hay next to the round bale and he did not move forward at all when he saw me.  He was putting zero weight on his right hind leg.  It was just lightly resting on the toe, but I could see all his weight was on his other hind leg.  He took the treats I offered, but made no effort to move forward.  He was in extreme pain.

Despite that pain, I knew I needed to get him in his stall.  I palpated the leg before moving him in case there was trauma, but I found nothing specific.  He was, however, generally painful no matter where I touched the leg. He was very sensitive to even the slightest touch.

I asked the other boarder who had come with me if she would provide some encouragement from behind while I tried to lead Nimo.  She agreed, but we were largely unsuccessful.  Nimo did not want to move.  We got him a few steps forward and I sent the other boarder for a whip.  I hated to do it, but I needed to get him out of the field.  (Note to self:  Have multiple gates on each side of a long field for ease of removing an injured horse.  Nimo was literally right next to the barn, but I had to lead him around the perimeter of the field to get to the nearest gate.)

While I was waiting for the other boarder to come back with a whip, I realized I had fallen into an old habit - using force.  So I tried just using a super happy voice and asking Nimo to move forward and telling him how awesome he was.  Guess what?  He absolutely moved for me.  He sometimes just took one step at a time and then rested, but I managed to lead him what seemed like miles just with an encouraging voice.  (Note to self:  Trust matters with horses and it is worth spending the time to develop it for just this kind of situation!)  It became clear, though, that he could not put any weight on the right hind.  He was mostly hopping on his left hind.

It broke my heart to watch, but somehow, we got to his stall.  I set him up with hay and water and told the staff to leave him in.  I would come out in the evening to check on him and re-assess.

I was convinced it was still an abscess, but the pain he was in was giving me second thoughts.  I could not find any other potential reason for the lameness, though.  No swelling, no specific area of pain.  Yet, the coronet band was not hot nor was there any evidence of any specific location on the hoof that there was an abscess.

I spent the day debating whether I should use Bute and eventually decided to give it 24 hours.  With as much pain as Nimo was in, I expected the abscess to be coming out any minute.

But it didn't come out.  The next day, Nimo was in so much pain, he was shaking and wouldn't eat.  I immediately started him on 2 grams of Bute a day and continued to keep him in his stall.  Except that I came out twice a day to "walk" him for about 20 minutes.  For the first few days, that walk was literally just him hopping a short distance from his stall to a small patch of grass in front of the barn.  I don't think I can describe how I felt internally when I asked him to walk in that much pain.  (I would cry all the way home from the barn because I felt so terrible about the pain he was in.)  But I knew that the less he moved, the longer it would take for the abscess to come out.  The Bute helped take the edge off of the pain, but Nimo was still at a grade 5 lameness.  He seemed comfortable enough to eat, though, so I decided to give it a couple of days and then talk to my vet about giving a stronger pain medication.

I also called one of my friends who has extensive experience with abscesses because her horse had them repeatedly for months until it was discovered that she had a tumor in her foot that grew from the coronet band to the bottom of the hoof.  (The tumor was surgically removed when it was discovered and the horse did recover and has been sound for years and is in light work with no issues at all, which is a whole other story.)  The reason I called her is because I wanted to know what protocols she had used during all those abscesses.  She also uses the same vet that I do, so I knew whatever they told her was likely to be what they would tell me.  What she said is that no matter what the vet did, she could not drain the abscess before it was ready to come out.  They soaked and poulticed and even drilled into the hoof to try to create a drainage path for the abscess, but it took 13 days for the first of several abscesses to come out.  Her recommendation to me was to save my money on the vet treatments in case there was a more serious issue (like in her case).  She'd spent thousands of dollars by the time it was all over, and having the vet out every other day to re-assess the abscess and try various procedures cost money that didn't need to be spent.

I spent the first 4 days of this situation second-guessing myself and worried that I was doing the wrong thing.  Should I get stronger drugs?  Should I have the vet do x-rays and an ultrasound just in case there was something I missed?  Also, after the first couple of days, the entire right hind leg swelled up from the stifle down to the hoof.  I started worrying that there was an underlying soft tissue injury even though logically it didn't make sense that the injury would happen on Sunday and the swelling wouldn't show up until 2 days later.

The other strange thing was that I couldn't find any specific swelling or heat indicating where the abscess wanted to come out.  Everyone who knew the situation kept asking why I wasn't soaking or poulticing.  Part of the reason is that my understanding is that soaking and poulticing can cause the entire hoof to weaken, making the hoof more susceptible to abscesses in the future, and I certainly never wanted to go through this again.  But I was desperate enough to do it if only I could find the specific location of the abscess.  I figured I could target a poultice to that location and then not weaken the rest of the hoof.  But at one point, I'd decided I would just poultice the entire leg and hoof to see what would happen.

Before I did that poultice, though, after 4 brutal days, I found swelling and generally yucky squishiness on the heel.  I had been expecting the abscess to come out of the hoof somewhere, but Nimo has hooves that are like rocks, so my guess is that the first time, the abscess tried to come out at the coronet band, but couldn't break through, so it migrated (temporarily relieving the pressure), and finally decided to come out above the hoof through actual skin.

Now that I had a location, I happily applied Ichthammol to the heel.  At about the same time, Nimo started to perk up and the barn owner was able to turn him out that Thursday (on Day Five of Abscess Watch).  He was still at a grade 4 lameness on that leg, but his attitude was much improved and he wanted to go out for the first time that week.

Over the next couple of days, Nimo was able to start walking a little better (although still grade 3-4), and finally on Saturday, the abscess burst out of his heel.  The location that it came out was HUGE (see below).  I can't even imagine what that must have felt like, and I have rarely been so relieved to see the end to a particular situation.

This is where the abscess came out of Nimo's foot
Nimo was still a little lame (more like grade 1-2) on the right hind, which made sense to me after all the pain he'd been in.  In fact, I was also concerned about his left hind, which had to bear so much weight.  I gave him a full week off of riding after the abscess came out and did some body work on him as well.  I've never seen so much tension in him.  I used the Bladder Meridian Technique from the Masterson Method, and he started yawning and shaking his head the second I touched him and didn't stop the entire time I worked on him.  The poor thing was sore all over.

On February 20th, I took him on what I expected to be a light conditioning ride using the 8-mile figure-8 trail at Phelps.  I rode with my friend who wanted to do the Intro ride the first weekend in March at the Blackwater Swamp Stomp, and we planned to do a lot of walking with some trotting, kind of based on how Nimo was feeling.  It was brutally hot that day (70 degrees!) and both our horses acted dog-tired the whole ride.  All I could think was that I was supposed to do a 13-mile ride over easy terrain in 2 weeks and my horse could barely manage to walk 8 miles.  I did not have a good feeling about the situation and I was struggling to understand how I'd gone from having a horse fit enough to do 30 miles in the mountains to one that could barely eek out 8.

I was depressed and upset at myself (even though I had made a concerted effort to decrease my training with Nimo, I still felt guilty).  But I knew my friend was really excited to do the ride, and part of the reason I was working with her was because I really wish I'd had somebody to ride with at my first ride.  It would have made a huge difference in my experience, and I was determined to help her.

So I spent the week doing short rides on Nimo in the arena with my bareback pad.  They were only about half an hour, which normally I wouldn't bother with, but something else that had been going on for months was that I was struggling to find time to ride at night.  I felt overwhelmed by all I had to do at home (we had contractors come over 3 times to do work on the house, and each time I felt compelled to have the house in what I would consider the bare minimum of cleanliness and it was sucking the life out of me.)  We'd also adopted 2 kittens in mid-January (super long story there), and while I adored them, they added more to my list of things to do.  Plus, I had two aquariums up and running and had just started a third (I have a problem, OK?), so I was still cycling 2 tanks and had a group of fish in quarantine.

The thing is, having a clean house is great.  Having kittens is rewarding.  I truly love my aquariums.  But, something had to give to accommodate all of that.  And that something was my riding.  I finally realized that even though my preference (and Nimo's) is that we ride at least an hour, 30 minutes is better than no minutes.  (I believe I've mentioned that I can be a slow learner sometimes!)  So, I got my butt on my horse at least a couple of times during the week and that helped me feel better.

A week before Blackwater Swamp Stomp, I decided that my friend and I would do an 11-mile ride out at the Shenandoah River State Park (aka Andy Guest).  Andy Guest is significantly more rugged than the trail at Blackwater would be, and it was my last-ditch effort to see if I could get Nimo ready for a ride that we could have done in our sleep a year ago.

So we rode.  I planned to push the horses as much as possible to see what we really had.  And I got a huge surprise.  Nimo was on fire.  The temperature was in the 40s, which helped quite a bit, I think.  But mentally, he was back.  He took the lead right away and after about a mile and a half of walking (that section of trail is pretty rocky and Nimo was barefoot, so I didn't really want to trot it), I asked him to trot and trot he did.  For miles through the winding wooded trails and up and down the hills.  When we got down by the river, I turned the lead over to me friend, and we trotted the entire trail by the river (about 2.5-3 miles).  Then we turned up to the gravel road that runs next to the river, but has small hills, and trotted that for a mile before we headed back into the woods, where Nimo took the lead again.  After we climbed for a bit, I asked Nimo to trot again, and he did.  He led all but the last mile back to the trailers and basically pulled along my friend's horse, who was getting tired, for 2-3 miles.

Nimo rocked that trail.  He was confident, forward, and very adjustable.  He felt like a real endurance horse for the first time in a long time.  In fact, I'm not sure he's ever felt quite like that with only one other horse.  He does do better with a buddy, but pretty often, the buddy has to lead.  Especially through the the forest.  Not that day, though.  He was happy to lead through the winding, undulating trail and actually left his buddy in the dust a couple of times.  And I didn't have to encourage him or kick him to get him motivated.  In a lot of places, he would just start trotting on his own after he slowed down for a rocky or tricky section of trail.

And, as it turned out, those 11 miles were really almost 13 miles.  My GPS must have underestimated it the first time I'd done it a couple of years ago, and I never rechecked the distance until that day.  I double-checked my GPS reading with the map to confirm that it was somewhere between 12.5 and 13 miles.  So we'd done the distance of the intro ride at a slightly slower than ride pace, but I knew with the easier terrain, both horses would be able to handle as much as a 6 mph pace without any trouble.  Whew!

Our route at Andy Guest
So why did I have so much trouble writing about all of this?  That's a good question, and part of the reason I haven't written is because I was trying to figure out the answer.  In the end, I think it came down to my mental state during January and February.  Despite all the positive things going on - new aquarium and fun fish, new kittens, taking care of a few necessary things for the house, and lovely warm days - I was somehow in doldrums underneath it all.  January and February are often tough months for me because winter has lost its novelty and the days are still short and cold.  This year, though, we've had a lot of really amazingly warm and sunny weather, so that wasn't it.

Work may have been a factor - I had a certain expectation about how things would go between October 1 and mid-January, and that expectation was not realized.  Work was stressful and...unpleasant...I'm not sure I can say much more than that, but I'm sure it affected my mental state. 

And then there was the Facebook Factor.  If you engage in FB posting and commenting, you may have had a similar experience to mine.  I discovered that many of my friends, some of whom I've had for decades, turned into horrifying people for a couple of months.  I know that the transition to a new president was difficult for many people, and I am not trying to diminish anyone's feelings on the matter.  What did really bother me was the way anyone who remotely disagreed with someone was treated.  I've never seen such name-calling, swearing, not-so-veiled insults, and bullying.  I've always considered dissent to be valuable and have never thought that disagreement or even a heated discussion is a bad thing.  But after weeks of trying to engage, I gave up and got off of FB for several days to reconsider my friendships, the use of FB, and my own choices.  It was a very reflective time for me. 

Eventually, I decided to get back on FB, but I've severely curtailed my own posting, and rarely comment anymore on others' posts.  I think that I became hyper-aware of how others might view anything that I wrote, and I became extremely reluctant to express anything for fear of offending someone during a time that has become full of conflict.  (Again, I'm not saying there are no reasons to be concerned.  I certainly have my own concerns.  But I already know that not everyone agrees with me on certain issues - issues that have been a concern for me long before the current president - and I have yet to call anyone names, insult them, or unfriend them because they disagreed with me.)

In the end, though, this is my blog about my journey with Nimo.  This journey is unique, and it is full of the highs and lows that characterized the last couple of months.  I'm thrilled that Nimo has healed from the abscess and that it wasn't something more serious.  I have a new admiration for the gift he has given me by interacting with me.  And I'm excited to tell you all about our ride at the Blackwater Swamp Stomp in my next post:)